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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conqueror and Squanderer - WSJ

Conqueror and Squanderer

The funeral pyre built for Hephaestion burnt up a trove equal to imperial Athens's yearly revenue.

Photo: UIG via Getty Images

Plutarch's pack-animal tally is of course unreliable and, for the modern historian, nearly meaningless. To understand Alexander's financial clout, one needs to know the ratio of gold to silver in the beasts' saddlebags, the weight that each one could carry and, above all, the buying power of the resulting sums. These are matters for a trained numismatist, and Frank Holt, an Alexander specialist with a keen eye for ancient coinage, is the perfect man for the job. In "The Treasures of Alexander the Great," he delves into Alexander's wealth, and the power that accrued from it, with remarkable thoroughness and specificity, bringing us as close as the evidence allows to reckoning up history's greatest windfall profit.

The Treasures of Alexander the Great

By Frank L. Holt
Oxford, 295 pages, $29.95

Mr. Holt is fearless in his interrogation of both the ancient sources and the received wisdom among modern scholars. The sources portrayed Alexander as impoverished or deeply in debt at the start of his campaign, an assessment endorsed by many today. But Mr. Holt shows how the Macedonian "books" were juggled to produce this impression, as if to make Alexander's life story a rags-to-riches tale. In fact, as Mr. Holt shows, Alexander was already rich as a youth—the price he paid for Bucephalus, his treasured steed, could have bought dozens of ordinary horses—and he got incomparably richer. True, he occasionally needed to borrow from friends, but his personal deficits were only the result of cash-flow problems endemic to ancient economies, which, strangely from our perspective, lacked a meaningful banking system and basic instruments of credit.

Mr. Holt's book offers rich insights into the complexities inherent in those economies. Armies on campaign toted baggage trains that burgeoned with spoils; generals sent convoys to fetch chests of coin from depots in order to pay their troops. If the terrain became too harsh or the troops too encumbered, an order might be given to destroy bags of loot—the plunder accumulated during years of hard campaigning. Even if retained, plunder could not easily be secured, and after Alexander's death, baggage-stealing became a favored strategy among rival generals. "For years, the Macedonian veterans raided each other's camps, carried off and reclaimed old spoils, and demonstrated that loot was an indispensable part of their livelihood," Mr. Holt writes.

Alexander, according to some sources, twice issued the order to burn the baggage, when pressed by hard country and meager provisions, setting his tycoon troops back to the humble status from which they had sprung. These forfeitures, Mr. Holt implies, do much to explain the prolongation of Alexander's campaign past the point at which it might have ended. Like gamblers desperate to recoup their losses, the Macedonians pressed onward, across the Hindu Kush mountains and down the Indus River Valley, only to find that the spoils of the Far East were nowhere near as sumptuous as those from Persepolis and Babylon. By 323 B.C., when the army returned to Persia from India, thousands of soldiers were bankrupt, and Alexander restored morale only by settling their debts out of his own pocket.

Alexander's personal fortune also fluctuated wildly. Like a reckless lottery winner, he squandered vast sums on vanity projects or allowed faithless underlings to rob him. The funeral pyre he commissioned for Hephaestion, his closest companion, reportedly sent up in flames an amount of wealth equal to the yearly revenue of imperial Athens. Another friend, Harpalus, despite having proved himself unreliable, was appointed steward of a large portion of the king's wealth only to become a paragon of waste, fraud and abuse. When his day of reckoning finally arrived, he ran off to Greece with vast stores of embezzled cash. Losses like these, and lavish gifts awarded to flatterers and favorites, badly depleted Alexander's once-burgeoning treasury.

Mr. Holt takes pains to put the responsibility for such wastage squarely on Alexander's shoulders and to dispel the notion, advanced in recent books and essays, that Alexander can serve as a model for the modern CEO. "It cannot be said . . . that he ever kept close watch on the financial administration of his empire," Mr. Holt writes. Alexander, in his view, was a soldier, not an administrator, and regarded money mainly as a force multiplier rather than a means to spur development and growth. Mr. Holt's book may thus find a warm reception among the large cadre of historians who regard Alexander as a plunderer and a brigand.

For all its insight and expertise, "The Treasures of Alexander the Great" reaches a disappointing conclusion. In his final chapter, Mr. Holt turns to evidence from coin hoards and mint production to attack the notion, advanced by Alexander's defenders, that the Macedonian conquest of Asia had the salutary effect of putting large amounts of wealth warehoused by the Persians back into circulation. It may well be true that captured riches did not go mainly into coins, but it would be rash to argue, as Mr. Holt seems at times to do, that the release of stored treasure did not raise standards of living across much of the ancient economy. But this somewhat tendentious ending does little to diminish Mr. Holt's otherwise persuasive arguments or to dampen the pleasure of reading his prose, which everywhere radiates conviction and clarity.

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